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Guest Column, 12-13: Answers for Dancers
Are Agents Good for Dancers?

By Grover Dale
Copyright 2006 Grover Dale

Previously published on Answers4dancers.com.

A "soon-to-go-pro" dancer from the Midwest contacted me through Answers4dancers.com wanting to know if dance agencies were good or bad news for dancers. My response began with assurances that without them, most dancers today would still be struggling with cattle call indignities, contractual abuses, and sub-standard wages. To me, giving her a quick look back to "pre-agent" days would be enough to realize how lucky dancers are today.

The era of the "dance agent" was launched in 1985. A popular West Coast dance teacher, Julie McDonald was teaching jazz in a Venice, California studio. An unexpected knee injury forced Julie to rethink her future. Uncertain if dance could remain a part of it, she struggled through endless job searches and ended up enrolling in a three-week career-development course. Daily classes (starting at 5 a.m.!) soon triggered many new possibilities. One in particular surfaced... "REPRESENTATION FOR DANCERS"... a niche in the entertainment field that felt like a fit to her.

The diva of all agents, Julie McDonald and choreographer client Russell Clark. Photo courtesy Answers4dancers.com.

Within days, a small ad appeared in Daily Variety saying, "Wanted. Dancers For Representation." The ad directed dancers to an audition where Julie was prepared for whoever might show up. She enrolled Gene Castle to teach a tap combo, Russell Clark a jazz combo, and Michelle Zeitlin a ballet combo. 300 dancers showed up. Julie had a ball. Days later, there was a new dance department installed at one of L.A.'s top commercial agencies, Joseph, Helfond, & Rix. Julie was the entire department. She was given a phone, a desk, 50% of any commissions she brought in, and the opportunity to create something new. The rest is history.

The fusion between "dance" and "agenting" has grown beyond everyone's expectations, including Julie's. Today, there are literally dozens of dance agents populating agencies in Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, Miami, and Chicago. And more, we hear, are on the way. Armed with plenty of questions, we set out to do our own sleuthing....

How does the industry react to dance agents?

"It's a no-brainer," claims Brian Gendece, personal manager to high profile choreographers like Tina Landon and Liz Imperio, "dance agents save production companies time, money, and aggravation...."

"In the 'pre-dance-agent' days," added Brian, "production companies organized open calls and managed massive turnouts. Today, the task has changed. Producers and casting directors simply pick up a phone and tell the agents they want to see 50 of their finest dancers at tomorrow's audition. Casting requirements are faxed over. The agents go into action, customizing their client list to fit specific criteria. Taller women, Latin men, character types, partnering proficient, whatever's needed. Within hours, appropriate dancers are called, prepped, and confirmed to show up at the audition. By morning, employers walk into the studio confident that 50 talented (and pre-screened) dancers will show up for them to look at. For this stress-free service, all the production company does is contribute an extra 10% to each dancer's salary to cover the agent's commission! The cost to dancers is zip, zero!"

How does representation happen?

"Dancers submit pictures, resumes, and/or demo reels to the agent," explains Brian. "The agent, in turn, invites dancers to audition, either in a class or at the agent's scheduled auditions. Some agents require callbacks, some don't. Sometimes, finalists are signed on the spot, sometimes not. Those that are, are called into the agency for orientation. The journey begins...."

What drives the relationship between client and agent?

What improves it? What defeats it? Tough questions... but aren't they the ones all of us should be thinking about? To get the lowdown, I turned to the agents themselves. Three were interviewed (one is a manager). Invited to be as "ruthless" as they could permit themselves, they rose to the occasion.

From my phone interview with Tim O'Brien, lead agent at Clear Talent Group:

How long is the bonanza in dance employment going to last?

"Things can go hot and cold in the dance world like any part of the industry. We have clients that, literally, go week to week to week doing different jobs. The biggest problem is when there's an overlap and they have to decide which one they're going to do. Faune Chambers, who's one of our top clients, did Janet's video. After the shoot she went by the Christina Aguilera set just to say hello. It was the second day of shooting, but when the director saw her on the set, at dinner break he said, 'Do we have a costume for Faune? Oh, good, we can get one. Faune, can you be in my video?' So, in one day, she did two major videos."

Just from dropping by?

"Oh, yes. We have other people who just go from one gig to the next. Carmit Bachar's another one. She's constantly working."(Note: Today, Carmit is one of the dancers in the successful girl group, the Pussycat Dolls.)

How much can a dancer make in a year?

"Top dancers often make six figures a year."

But the financials can be slippery, too, right?

"There's a show called Making the Video, that MTV does. We started advising our dancers not to sign the releases because MTV will come in with a separate release saying, it's okay to use my image on MTV. We have people like Carmit and Faune Chambers who are in danger of getting over-exposed in the video market. It's great for the choreographer to get that kind of exposure, and it's great for the artist and it's great for the costume person. For the dancer it's questionable. Producers can easily say, "We'd love to use Faune, but she's so predominant in the No Doubt video that we don't want to have her in ours...." So it runs the risk of over-exposing them. So, we're trying to get some over-scale payments on these situations and we also got MTV to pay the dancers. The dancers are the only people that have ever been paid for Making the Video. They're TVQ on this -- Making the Video will air ten times on a weekend."

Where does this kind of popularity lead to?

"I know T.J. Espinosa, who got to be known as Britney's backup dancer, and actually had a fan club. Recently, T.J. came by our audition (a lot of the dancers come by, just to hang out) and we were auditioning kids. Well, T.J. walked in and I said, this is T.J. Espinosa and there were literally gasps and screams from the kids. I thought, that can't be what I'm hearing, and I kind of blocked it out. When the audition was over, usually they're waiting around when we talk to parents and all that sort of thing. The room emptied. I thought, that's strange, but we went about our business. Two minutes later the room filled back up again. They had all gone to their cars, to get their cameras, pens, pencils, or whatever they could find to get autographs from T.J."

How does an agent guide a dancer through this kind of success?

"I tell the kids, save your money. It doesn't last forever."

From my phone interview with Brian Gendece, former agent, now acts as personal manager to high-profile choreographers.

Is there a type of dancer that's currently in demand?

"Tall male and female hip-hop dancers are always in demand. (Over 5'7" for women and over 6' for men.) If they can 'hang' with the best of the hip-hop world, agencies will sign them at the first audition."

What about body types? Is perfectionism relaxing these days?

"I think in the live, hip-hop arena, yes. But in most situations, a lean, hard body is ideal."

What stands out about the dancers you've worked with?

"They all have good, professional attitudes. Reputations are everything. A bad one circulates quickly. Everyone hears about it. There's not enough time in the day to deal with divas, moaners, and groaners. Does everybody hear me? A pro knows when not to cross that line. If they see something going wrong while on a job, they know to call their agent before causing a drama on the set.... They also don't call six times a day wanting to know where their checks are, and why they weren't called for an audition that their friend went on.

"Then, there are dancers who don't understand the 'agent-client' relationship. They make inappropriate calls... like... Why did so and so get to audition and I didn't? All too often, they describe someone that's a totally different race, type, or age range. Then, we have the job of calming them down and explaining why they didn't fit the casting criteria."

How specific do casting requirements get?

"One day, I got a call saying, 'Send me 20 of your best, drop-dead gorgeous girls only.' Then I started asking questions. 'Do you mean gorgeous like a super model or gorgeous like the dancers in so-and-so's video?' By the time I got some answers, it wasn't about 'gorgeous' at all, but about girls who can throw attitude and have long legs."

Sounds like agents provide a lot of service?

"We pre-screen talent, we make the calls, we prep the dancers, we confirm attendance, we negotiate the contracts, collect the payments, mail the checks, and stay on top of working conditions."

Do dancers provide headshots?

"We won't send a new client out on an audition until pictures and resumes are on file. What we're finding out is that two out of every eight dancers that we pick never bring in pictures and resumes. Those dancers will not be put into our computer system and will be dropped as clients."

Amazing.... Blowing off representation because you can't manage pix and resumes....

"It happens. Better to find out about irresponsibility sooner than later."

Do you expect your clients to maintain training?

"Definitely. We say the more skills you work on, the more auditions you go out on. It's that simple."

What do you want teachers to know about educating their students?

"Send us dancers who can show they are as well-educated in the real world as they are in the classroom."

Wrap-up: Six months after the "soon-to-go-pro" dancer contacted me, another e-mail arrived announcing that she had been signed by an agency in New York.

(To be continued.)

Grover Dale has performed, directed, and choreographed for the stage, screen, and television. Thanks to 16 Broadway musicals, eight motion pictures, and 85 TV productions, he is the recipient of the Tony, Drama Desk, Dramalogue, Emmy, and Clio Awards. Today, he and a team of pros continue to jump-start dance careers by combining live workshops with video programming on Answers4dancers.com. For more on the above topic on Answers4dancers.com, see the text pages "40 Agent Turn-ons & Turn-offs," "Agent Listings," "Agent Auditions," and "Do's & Don'ts of getting an Agent," and the video clips "Shortcuts to Agent Representation," "How to Make at Agent's 'Top 10' List," "Agent Hopping/How Smart is it?" and "This is a Business."

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